Hello again, everyone! I do still exist, as it appears (How would I be publishing this otherwise?), though writing for fun will once more be doomed to exist on the fringes of the never-ending varieties of "I have another blasted group project to do? But I already have three to do this week, and there are more than 8 chapters of books to read and 6 four-to-eight page papers to write and I have to read the entire textbook and annotate it and oh crap I forgot about that class so I guess I'm not eating lunch today". College as an English Education major is just a mess. Please wish me luck on the Praxis. (It's the test you need to pass to be able to teach here.)

Just in case you forgot, I still don't own FMA, no matter how much I love it.

...

Echoes of Memory

...

A lone figure stood against the stinging whip of the wind-blown sand, sharp blue and silver dyed crimson and black with the setting of the sun. Darkness was the man's cloak against prying eyes, his back on his own company and his face to the night, his thoughts no doubt more harsh than the desert winds that ripped at the cloth covering his form.

Maes Hughes knew that shape. Knew also that the man desperately wished to be alone.

Did he let that fact stop him from going to the man he counted as a friend?

Of course not. He wasn't about to abandon Roy to the daggers of his own mind.

That wasn't to say that he would be his typical façade of happiness, though. No. Not here, not now. Too many memories were wrought up in this place for that.

Too much blood and guts and screams and curses and snaps and booms and sheer terror had touched this place.

This place had seen Hell. Really, it was a small wonder that Maes could say that any place had not seen Hell. Central, for instance. Maybe West, and most of North. But not here.

Sand scoured his face as he stood motionless, caught in his own thoughts, a minor pain that would have left many of the people Maes worked with wish to leave the area immediately.

For him, and for Roy, and the others that had served during the Ishvallan campaign, the sand brought memories that most would rather leave buried. The sand itself was a mere physical pain, easily dismissed. The inner pain of the memories, though – it was not so easily ignored.

Perhaps it should not have been so. It would be easier, now, if this was fact. But it would mean that the soldiers were truly the dogs of the military if it were so.

Dogs didn't complain if they felt emotional pain.

Men suffered greatly from it, but attempted to remain stoic. Or so Maes saw it. You got to know the signs of it quite well after a few weeks of feeling the same, you see.

Maes took a few steps forward, military-issue boots sinking into the liquid solidity of the sand. It wasn't the first time he'd found himself wishing for solid ground. The desert dunes sought to mire the foreigners in her grip, almost as if she held them back from causing her people more harm.

Nothing came easy in this place. Water was a rarity, and never to be wasted. Roads were forever lost to all but those who traveled them frequently. Finding a city required more knowledge than most Amestrians possessed. And even then, it was impossible to find the people who had once lived here.

They had flourished here, somehow. In the impossible landscape, it seemed a miracle that anyone could do so, let alone an entire culture, but they had done it. Ishvallans, they were called, the People of Ishvalla. Their belief system would have been hard to describe for even an ethnographer, but Maes knew that much from his research into the society. Apparently they were the chosen people of their god, who had promised them salvation if they followed the teaching s/he set for them.

Maes was unsure of Ishvalla's assumed gender, like many Amestrians. He had known even less when he had been sent here for the first time, green as the grass he'd left behind in East City. None of the new recruits had known anything of Ishvallans prior to their posts, not really. All they'd been told was that they were being sent to repress the rebellion, and that anyone with brown-white hair and red eyes was not to be trusted.

The cadets had been naïve of the ways of war, hadn't really known what to expect. The stories told from Headquarters were fantastical in nature, he discovered. In less than a month, Maes had wondered idly why he'd ever believed them. Six weeks in to the rebellion, he began to doubt the brass's orders, especially the motives behind them. Did no one else see that the Ishvallans were people, not so different from the Amestrians, and not rats to be eradicated?

But a few of them had. Alex Louise Armstrong was one of the few alchemists who had asked that same question. Strongarm was his State name, and he definitely fit the part. The man's muscles had bulged from beneath his uniform, even in those days, and the rest of his insanely muscular body had been much the same. Pink sparkles appeared at random around the enigmatic Major whenever he spouted that something – it didn't seem to matter what it was – had been passed down his family for generations.

One night around the campfire, though, the man had not seemed so enthusiastic. The Major had appeared absolutely dejected, stunned at his own actions and the incredible loss of life. The shock of the first few engagements had worn off, and Armstrong could not believe what the Amestrian army was doing. Civilians, members of their own country, were being slaughtered at the hands of the military, and it had broken Armstrong's huge heart. The next day, he had broken down completely in the middle of the battle, sobbing uncontrollably as he watched the life fade from an Ishvallan child held in his gentle arms. Armstrong had been sent back to Central after that, under guard and headed for an intense psychiatric assessment.

Maes, who had been close to doing the same, was determined not to scare his Gracia that way. Soon after hearing about the Major's fate, he had been transferred under Basque Gran, where Maes took what steps he could to avoid killing Ishvallans without being detected. He had no intention of being court-martialed for traitorous behavior, but could no longer force himself to kill innocents.

No, not kill. Murder. That's what it really was. Maes had convinced himself that it wasn't murder while he'd been doing it. It was simply killing. Had to be. Otherwise, he would have gone insane at the incredible loss of life that he was causing.

The weight that had long ago settled on Maes' heart seemed a heavier load than ever as he recalled what he had done, those years prior.

Murder.

It was a heavy word with many connotations attached to it, but even those barely touched the surface of what Maes felt. Killing was never easy, not for any sane person.

Roy didn't turn when Maes reached his side at last. Nor did he speak. Maes hadn't really expected him to. He didn't know what to say, either.

Not that they really needed words. With all they'd been through together, words weren't really necessary. Shared pain did not need to be expressed with verbal language. Could not be expressed in such a way.

The cold wind of the desert night stung Maes' face as he stared out into the darkness.

If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn that the darkness stared back in accusation. Murderer, it whispered as it lashed his face with gritty sand. Killer. You fancied yourself soldiers, but all you did was kill. You murdered my children. Spilt their blood on my sand, left them dying in agony as you pushed ever forward toward your goals. Where was your high-minded mercy, soldier? Murderers, all of you.

Maes had no rebuttal, nor did he seek one. He had accepted his fate ten years ago when he had begun supporting Roy in his bid for the Fuhrership, had come to terms with the truth of his deeds a few weeks before that. Murderers they all were, every last one of the Amestrians who had been sent to Ishval. Young and old held together as one, with no escape possible from their own thoughts and those of their comrades.

The Crimson Alchemist was the only one who reveled in his status as murderer. Had he been allowed to continue on, Ishvallans and Amestrians alike would no longer exist. Crimson didn't discriminate among his victims. As long as they were afraid of him and exploded when he wished, Crimson was perfectly content, even pleased. Thankfully for the safety of everyone in the world, Crimson had been sentenced to a life in prison. Solitary, so that he would never be able to kill another human being.

Maes shuddered at the memory of Crimson's alchemy. He didn't care how 'scientific' alchemy claimed to be. It was indescribably wrong to see a person's body explode from the inside with enough force to kill anyone else within a ten foot radius.

For a time, Maes had been afraid of all alchemists after seeing Crimson at work, an insane, happy grin upon his face as he cheerfully blew up everything and everyone he could get his tattooed palms on. No one should be able to kill another human being with a smile.

Ever.

And then he'd been sent out with different unit, one that had been thrown in with the Flame Alchemist's command for a single assault on one of the larger cities in the area. They were told to provide backup for the alchemist in charge, and admonished severely to watch for any snipers.

It wasn't until Maes was halfway through the raid that he'd realized who he had been guarding. Roy.

He'd completely forgotten that his old friend and competitor had become an alchemist of the State until he'd caught a glimpse of the Major's face. Even after the memories had crashed back into his head, it was hard to place his emotions toward Roy in the wake of Crimson's actions. Explosions were the theme of both State Alchemists' work, but Flame's were more controlled, designed to kill and destroy as quickly as could be achieved.

Most of his victims were mere ash upon the desert wind, carried with the sand to sting at eyes and nose and sear the tongue with the visceral taste of charred flesh. Just the memory of it made Maes' stomach roil in protest.

He had asked Roy, once, what it was like to hold that much power. He'd never received a direct answer, but the look in his friend's eyes said more than Maes could have handled. Despair was there, a wretched knowledge that sat like rot in Roy's soul. How the alchemist had kept going was beyond Maes' comprehension.

But he was glad that he had. Roy's precision was the only relief most of the Ishvallans had. If they ran across the Flame Alchemist, their end was swift and near-instantaneous. Maes had heard no death screams that day. The victims were all dead before the air could leave their lungs, the oxygen trapped within aiding in their swift demise. The screams had come from the other half of the city, where Crimson's maniacal laughter ruled the streets and Gran mowed down civilians with alchemized weaponry.

Sickly white light bathed the desert floor as the two men stood, making no move to shield themselves from either wind or thoughts. Maes glanced at his friend's face, the light just enough to barely illuminate his expression.

Blank. Just like the mask he'd worn all those years ago in the desert sands. The mask he still wore, in the office. It had almost become inseparable from Roy's face by now. The best way to deceive those who hunted a flaw, a weakness, was to appear as if there were none. Roy had long ago become the master at manipulation, and the mask was a natural extension of that.

But it saddened Maes that it had become the norm. There was no one here that wanted to see past the Flame's defenses, no one that would hurt those Roy protected if he showed them that he still cared. That he wasn't just the impenetrable stone mask that he donned every day to protect his men… and to protect himself.

Roy had noticed his gaze, picking up on the scrutiny out of reflex. Maes knew his own expressions were surely as open to Roy as Roy's were closed to the world. He'd never sought to hide his reactions from those he deemed friends. He'd never needed to, never had cause to try.

Roy sighed softly, apparently realizing Maes' intention to check if all was well.

Both of them knew very well that Roy's answering raised eyebrow was a lie, but it was one that persisted nevertheless. So long as one claimed to be fine, the other would have the opportunity to leave if his presence was needed elsewhere.

Maes had no such compunction to leave, and so gently shook his head in unspoken answer. Roy smiled faintly and looked back out into the stretching desert night, a clear invitation to stay – so long as Maes didn't talk, at any rate. Thoughts were more important here than words, and actions even more so.

They remained there, braced against the wind and the scouring sands for some hours, until Maes could no longer endure the memories in silence. With a soft touch to Roy's arm to call his attention, Maes turned his back to the wind and led his friend back to the others, who would be sure to welcome their company.

Some memories needed to be put aside to move forward. It was time to do so with these.

The wind, and the calls of those long dead, faded into the darkness of the desert night.